The failure to stand up for conservative thinking is leading us into a new cultural dark age.
The intellectual scene always used to have room for great minds from the Right. Today they would be denounced for thought crime by a Left that cannot tolerate dissent.
British intellectual life has always made room for the conservative voice. From Burke and Hume to Maitland and Oakeshott, British philosophers have offered a continuous reflection on our social and cultural inheritance, with a view to understanding the fundamental idea on which conservatism has been founded – the idea of belonging. They have insisted that the goal of our earthly life is not to remake the world but to belong to it, and that the true political virtues are patience, understanding and humility rather than indignation or revolutionary rage.
The conservative voice sounded clearly in the Cambridge, where I studied in the 1960s. I absorbed from the atmosphere of that university a unique conception of social order, in which common-law justice, aristocratic eccentricity and a suspicion of top-down government were tied together in an inextricable knot. This social order, I was taught, is the property of the ordinary person and not the preserve of the state. The attempt by fascists and communists to appropriate it had been defeated, and our duty was both to restore our cultural inheritance, and also to repossess it as our own.
I absorbed the Cambridge lesson from the curmudgeonly Maurice Cowling; others absorbed it from F.R. Leavis, others from the younger dons (John Casey in English, Michael Tanner in philosophy, Norman Stone in history), all of whom saw the curriculum as a cultural bequest. We did not accept this bequest as dogma, but were encouraged to absorb it and also to question it. We learned that the lessons of history are far from simple, and that the truth will never emerge from dogmatic assertions, but only from sceptical and open-minded argument, in which real knowledge rather than comfortable opinion provides the links.
Among the most challenging of our mentors was the late Norman Stone, the Glaswegian historian whose ability to communicate the big picture left a lasting impression on his pupils. Norman was a strong, if ironical, defender of our inherited identity, but, as a Scot, he understood that identity has many layers: a Scot is not forced to choose between being a Scot and a Brit, any more than he is forced to choose between whisky and wine – Norman being, in the matter of alcohol, a believer in a borderless community of the Enlightened. He had a deep knowledge of the European empires, a love of Austro-Hungary, and a remarkable acquaintance with the languages of central Europe. He set an example of imaginative involvement with other cultures that was all the more impressive for the sarcastic wit with which he punctured our patriotic illusions.
When, in later years, I joined the battle against communism, I collaborated with Norman, whose historical vision enabled him to perceive the spiritual depth beneath the malign surface of the Soviet Empire. National identity, he taught, is of the first importance; but it is always part of a wider community in which legal, spiritual and linguistic forces make and re-make the social fabric. I travelled with him in communist Poland, where he showed me the hidden life beneath the polluted surface.
My Cambridge education was completed by those travels behind the iron curtain. I came to see that, unless free enquiry is upheld by universities and the media, the conservative voice will be silenced. The result will be the kind of totalitarian paralysis that I witnessed in Eastern Europe.
Reflecting on recent witch-hunts, my own included, I have been particularly struck by the letters of mass denunciation which are now commonplace in our universities.
Letters against Jordan Peterson and Noah Carl, with many signatures, have recently excluded two important dissidents from the University of Cambridge. I was reminded of the petitions that academics in the communist countries were forced to sign, begging for the punishment of their dissident colleagues. But these new denunciations are all the more disgraceful in that the signatories do not have the secret police at their elbow, guiding their pen. The accusers are enthusiasts, inspired by an ideology that sees conservative views and attitudes as evil – not to be discussed but to be silenced.
Having just survived a Leftist show trial, with no help from the lame Conservative government of Mrs May, I feel a certain alarm at the change in the public culture of this country. The idea of a thought crime has been with us for a long time, of course. We used to look in astonishment on Moscow show-trials, in which the victim, convicted of deviationism, bourgeois idealism, “neo-Schellingism”, Zionist imperialism or whatever, is given a brief chance to confess enthusiastically to his fault, before being taken away to the firing squad. Where was the evidence, we asked, and what exactly was the crime?
Now we see respectable thinkers accused of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia and a host of other thought crimes, on the strength of a word out of context, a long-forgotten friendship, or (as with Jordan Peterson) a photograph proving that you are capable of standing next to someone wearing the wrong kind of T-shirt. The punishments are mild compared with those of the Moscow trials. But they are severe enough, as I and Peterson have both discovered. And in every case there is no defence. For every attempt at a defence entrenches the accusation. If you point out that the thought crimes are largely chosen to mean whatever the accuser wishes them to mean, then that is sure proof that you are guilty.
We are, it seems to me, entering a realm of cultural darkness, in which rational argument and respect for the opponent are disappearing from public discourse, and in which increasingly, on every issue that matters, there is only one permitted view, and a licence to persecute all the heretics that do not subscribe to it. This signifies, to my way of thinking, the death of our political culture, and the rise of a kind of godless religion in its stead.